During the early years of the Church, when a dispute arose concerning whether or not gentile converts should be circumcised, the Apostles met together in Jerusalem to resolve the issue (Acts 15). This council set the precedent for all future gatherings of the Church’s leaders.
As the Church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire, it became necessary for the bishops of Churches in a given area to meet together on a regular basis to address issues of common concern. Apostolic Canon 34 provides for the creation of a regional synod. The bishops of a given area were to gather together twice a year. The meetings were to be chaired by the bishop of the major city in the area, the metropolis. The bishop of this city became known as the metropolitan.
Each bishop was responsible for the governance of his Church. Issues of common concern, however, were brought before the regional synod and decided by all of the bishops. The metropolitan did not “rule” the synod, but he did have veto power over the synod’s decisions. Just as nothing within a given Church could be done without the bishop’s approval, so nothing could be done in a region that affected more than one Church without the approval of the metropolitan. The metropolitan, then, served as the principle of unity within the synod.
Some issues, however, such as doctrinal questions, involved more than the Churches of a particular region, to deal with issues pertaining to the universal Church. The largest and most important of these gatherings are called the Ecumenical Councils.
The Ecumenical Councils were originally convened by the Roman Emperor and presided over by a senior bishop. The Orthodox Church recognizes seven councils as being Ecumenical.
It is important to note that not all large councils are considered Ecumenical Councils. We often speak of Ecumenical Councils as being “infallible,” but there was no guarantee at the beginning of any of these Councils that they would be considered infallible. Only after the decisions of a Council have been received by the consciousness of the whole Church can it be called Ecumenical and infallible.
When the bishops meet together in council, they do not invent new doctrines. Rather, their job is to express the mind and life of the Church. A specific situation, such as the challenge of a new heresy, may necessitate the development of the Church’s vocabulary or a change in the way the Church expresses a particular idea. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the bishops to elaborate upon what the Church has always believed and experienced, not to invent new teachings.
When, however, bishops in council did deviate from the faith once delivered and made decrees contrary to the faith and life of the Church, the Body of the Church throughout the world rejected the decisions. A council held in Ephesus in 449 had a greater number of bishops in attendance than many Ecumenical Councils, yet its decisions were rejected by thee Church at large. It has gone down in history as the “Robber Council.”
The purpose of a council, whether a regular meeting of a regional synod or a gathering of all of the world’s bishops, is to express the mind and heart of the Church as a whole. No single bishop, not even a patriarch, can claim exclusive rights to the Holy Spirit. The bishops are answerable to the whole Church for their decisions.
It is this conciliar process, reflecting the conciliar nature of the All-Holy Trinity, which is the supreme expression of authority within the Church. It is for this reason that the Church cannot and will not accept the claims of the bishop of Rome to be infallible and to rule over the entire Church.
Excerpt from: The Faith ...... Author: Clark Carlton